Kyrgyzstan weighs opium as industry
As an election nears, a presidential candidate promotes the idea that the opium trade could bring cash to the impoverished Central Asian republic.
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Nevertheless, 80 percent of the world's morphine (one of the major opium-derived products) is consumed by six of the world's richest countries. Developing countries can often neither afford nor access it, leading some to argue that despite the INCB's analysis, global demand is yet to be met.
Soviets cultivated opiates for the masses
Nazaraliev believes that the success of the Soviet opium industry can be re-created, dismissing fears that there would be diversion to the black market and a resultant rise in the number of heroin users.
It is notoriously difficult to determine exactly how much opium was diverted to the illegal market in Soviet times. The desire to keep up appearances prevented the authorities from admitting that there were any troubles in their socialist paradise.
As Mr. Zelichenko notes, however, "if you don't look for it, you won't find it." He recalls how an overly successful drug checkpoint that he manned briefly in 1973 was closed following a phone call from Moscow. The high number of drug seizures were making a mockery of Soviet rhetoric.
Even with all the resources of an authoritarian regime, the Soviet authorities were unable to prevent some covert wheeling and dealing. Kyrgyzstan is currently ranked the fourth most-corrupt country in the world by Forbes magazine. Some say the country could quickly become a narcostate to rival Afghanistan.
"It would be ... almost impossible to control. It's no secret that the level of corruption is very high in this country," says Zelichenko.
Could the narcotic bring pain to the country?
Kyrgyzstan, lying as it does on the major drug-trafficking route from Afghanistan to Western and Russian markets, has seen a dramatic increase in heroin addiction in recent years. In 2006, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated the total number of intravenous drug users to be 25,000.
Dmitri Samarin, director of the nongovernmental organization "RANAR," which runs drug rehabilitation and harm-reduction programs in Kyrgyzstan, stresses the headway that has been made in developing more effective and fair legislation and changing social attitudes. "Tajikistan only dreams of the progress that Kyrgyzstan has made," he says.
Zelichenko says that it is imperative for Kyrgyzstan to preserve this good reputation, given its dependency on international aid and need to attract foreign investors.
"Each potential donor country that would like to invest in Kyrgyzstan will take drug policies in the country into account," he says. "They care less about any kind of freedom, but if drug cultivation is legal, for example, and the country is awash with drugs, then it is dangerous for the economy."
Should Kyrgyzstan legalize opium production for medicinal purposes, alarm bells may start to ring in the international community. Neighboring countries, some with even weaker infrastructure, may be tempted to follow this precedent, exacerbating instability in the region.
"Will [Kyrgyzstan] set up a working group to examine and debate this policy?" Zelichenko muses. "My fear is that 'wham' – a decree is issued and Kyrgyzstan finds itself in dangerous waters."